Are we there yet?

Smaller, lighter and faster has long been the mantra from notebook vendors everywhere - but how much further do we need to go?

When the first laptops launched, they were luggable rather than portable. The 1981 CP/M-based Osborne 1 - priced at $US1795 - was a popular contender for the crown of the first true commercial laptop. It weighed 11kg and was the size of a sewing machine. It didn't run on batteries but had to be plugged in to take advantage of its blistering 4.0MHz processor, vast 5-inch display and capacious 64KB of RAM. We've come a long way, baby. But are we there yet?

The latest ultraportables are less than one-tenth of the Osborne 1's weight in a typical 12.1-inch LCD form factor. Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) are even lighter, tipping the scales at 900g or less.

You'd think that a feather light package would be where it's at, a veritable Holy Grail for notebook manufacturers. But the reality is the smallest only sell in a certain subset of the market. The sweet spot for notebook sales is mid-range, weighing 2.5kg with a 15-inch screen. After all, human fingers aren't getting any smaller.

Acer product manager, Henry Lee, said the Taiwanese manufacturer offered 15.4-inch, 14-inch and 12.1-inch versions of its TravelMate business notebooks. They are all widescreen, following user demand. "They all use Intel Santa Rosa-type processors, Core 2 Duo with vPro, so they're more targeted at the high end, government, corporate and education markets," Lee said.

Acer's 1.95kg TravelMate with a 12.1-inch screen has 2GB of RAM, a built-in Web cam and optical drive. It also featured Crystal Eye technology to help the Web cam in low light, Lee said, but it wasn't a volume seller.

"In Australia, users tend to prefer our largest TravelMate, with the 15.4-inch display. I think it's because people here tend to travel a lot by car," Lee said. "People just throw their notebooks in the car."

While there's little performance benefit to the larger beasts, though, Lee said they did have a discrete graphics card - something most vendors leave out of ultraportables.

"But you can have the same processor, the same amount of memory, the same hardware," he said. Many vendors use the more expensive ultra-low voltage CPUs in their ultraportables, which help keep systems cooler and extend battery life. However, Lee said Acer used standard CPUs because the advantage was negligible against the need to keep smaller product within buyer budgets. Acer's 12.1-inch TravelMate promises 3.5 hours of battery life, up to a maximum of 5-6 hours with an additional battery.

According to Lee, major boosts to TravelMate technology aren't expected until Intel's Penryn 45nm hardware and the Montevina mobility bundle arrive in 2008.

Is Acer planning to go smaller? "We've certainly got no UMPCs planned. I think we might play in that space but right now we're just watching and seeing whether the product will become mainstream," he said.

To UMPC or not

Fujitsu PC product manager, David Niu, doesn't like to call Fujitsu's LifeBook U1010 a UMPC, although technically it does fit in that category. The U1010 weighs just 610g, has a 5.6-inch display, 1GB of on-board RAM and runs XP or Vista over Intel's UltraMobile Platform 2007, including up to 1.2GHz of A110 ultra-low voltage processing power.

Instead, the U1010, Niu said, is a fully-featured small computer, without the limitations that the term UMPC came to represent when early iterations were launched a year or so ago. With the two-cell battery, you get about three hours of battery life and, with the optional four-cell, up to six hours.

The U1010 retails at around $1699 and about 4000 have been sold across the Asia-Pacific to date, but there is a large demographic of youthful early adopters in markets like Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan that likes to buy small and cute products, he noted.

"Australians are more budget-sensitive and they don't want to buy a computer for the sake of buying a computer," Niu said. "But we are expecting these products to do quite well."

Fujitsu focuses on travelling professionals and executives who appreciate the smaller form factor and can pay the premium such technologically advanced products often command. About 70 per cent of Fujitsu PC product weighs under 2kg, according to Niu. And many are coming out with 3G for better connectivity across Australia.

Resellers, he suggested, must understand that one size didn't fit all when it came to notebooks. Savvy resellers will educate customers about the different features, functionality, benefits and disadvantages of various SKUs - because the range from all vendors is diverse.

"It's important that resellers help users make up their minds," Niu said. "And they need to teach consumers that if the notebook you choose is more than 2kg it's probably not a good idea for it to sit over your shoulder for two hours."

Toshiba information systems division general manager, Mark Whittard, said it was selling a UMPC in Japan, but not locally - not yet anyway.

The vendor does, however, offer an ultraportable, the Portege R500, which weighs 700g. A 998g version with optical drive is also available.

Battery life is at the 2-3 hour mark, but can be boosted with an extended battery pack.

"The problem with UMPCs so far is that they're not quite fully functional in a small footprint," Whittard said.

Toshiba put out a 980g, 7-inch laptop similar in many respects to the UMPC concept, the Libretto, several years ago but take up was disappointing. Whittard said users raved about the Libretto product in reviews and when they saw it, but found over time that the small size made it less easy to use than they hoped.

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"Researchers are solving the screen size issue and other problems, but it's still a very difficult market [for UMPC-type products]," he said.

Like Acer, Toshiba is watching and waiting for the market to improve before putting another toe in the UMPC water. Meanwhile, its Portege range - whose latest representatives are the 1kg R500 and 1.4kg R400, with Telstra NextG cards included from December - has found a niche with professionals.

Whittard agreed that bigger screens and full-size keyboards were more popular - and practical - with Australians. "You should feel you can do everything on your device," he said. "And people have become conditioned to having a bigger screen."

SPURring ahead

That said, ongoing technological advances should make smaller notebooks and even UMPCs more popular. Toshiba is researching technologies such as virtual keyboards, taking away the need for an actual physical keyboard but supplying a full-size interface for user comfort. This will be complemented by the SPURS engine, which will 'read' and respond to human gestures. Whittard said the keyboard was 2-3 years away.

Ultra WideBand (UWB) wireless technology will be integrated into notebook design even sooner.

Whittard said UWB would slake the resource thirst of applications such as video-over-wireless, making it more feasible to do such tasks on smaller laptops or UMPCs.

Meanwhile, the Tecra 14-inch laptop, at 2.2kg, is Toshiba's best seller, with just 5-7 per cent of its sales at the 12.1-inch and smaller end of the market. October saw another new take on the ultramobile concept, Asus' Eee PC.

Asus product manager, Emmanuele Silanesu, said the 7-inch, 907g Eee PC sold for just $499, a fraction of the price of most laptops. It didn't, however, offer truly comparable features or performance - although that might be no object for its stated target of students, children and travellers. It can also work as a thin client. The Eee PC comes with 802.11g and Linux as OS, although it can carry XP. It is based on an Intel CPU and chipset and has 512MB memory. It also offers just 2-8GB of solid state storage, which is smaller, lighter, slower and more robust than traditional hard drives. Maximum battery life with its four-cell battery is 3.5 hours.

"We're working on some vertical markets; the Eee PC is having a software package developed for it," Silanesu said. Business customers might find more value in Asus' expanding UMPC range, which will also target various verticals such as healthcare. Silanesu said the vendor's 7-inch R50A recently won a 2008 International CES Innovations design award. On top of the usual feature set, the R50A model offers GPS capabilities, a Web cam, 3-3.5G card, built-in TV tuner, tablet and notebook functionality.

Sales are reportedly promising. But even Asus concedes the R50A won't fill the hunger.

"We see them as an accessory rather than as a notebook replacement," he said. "I don't think UMPCs will become mainstream at this stage, although maybe in five years' time, when there may no longer be a problem with speed."

Asus research into smaller and lighter yet robust notebooks has produced a few oddities, such as last year's bamboo notebook. Silanesu said: "Bamboo can be used and fi nished in a number of different ways. Plus, it's easily regrown; there are no environmental issues. And it's light and tough."

Six or seven years ago, Silanesu noted, a Swedish manufacturer courted ridicule by producing a series of timber keyboards and mice, yet the concept has definite possibilities as a solution.

Asus has also introduced brushed aluminium - another light, durable material little used until now in laptops. Increased use of solid state media and backlit LED displays - as in Asus' U1 notebook and newer brothers, the U3 and U6 - was key to creating even lighter and smaller laptops in the near future, Silanesu said.

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Principal of niche notebook distributor Tegatech, Hugo Ortega, sees great opportunities in the UMPC space after a slow start. But he agreed the main market was in vertical sectors such as healthcare or mining. Tegatech's resellers are working with companies such as Rio Tinto, NAB, Macquarie Bank, and the NSW Fire Brigade.

The company stocks a range of UMPCs including Samsung, Tabletkiosk, HTC and OQO, which tend towards a 7-inch screen, Windows support and sub-kg weight. The latest models include HSDPA modules for fast connectivity anywhere you can use a mobile phone, with the added advantage of solid state drive (SSD) for faster boot-up times and improved durability. For the right purpose, Ortega argued, UMPCs are the perfect solution. He pointed out the smallest ones are almost the same size as PDAs.

Retail access was holding back the market, he claimed: "Big retail isn't on-board yet, and that's damaging it. So there aren't any in one place for consumers to walk in and play with."

That said, Tegatech's UMPC sales are multiplying monthly. "We've got resellers selling them in lots of 50 and lots of 10 are common now. We've resellers quoting on lots of 1000," Ortega said.

Conflict and compromise

HP was another vendor that had steered clear of UMPC but watched the market with interest, market development manager, Jerel Chong, said. He argued the 12.1-inch ultraportable form factor, represented by HP's 1.4kg 2510p, was as small as most consumers wanted to go.

"Everybody wants their laptop lighter, because of mobility," Chong said. "But everyone likes the big screen as well."

To sell up to ultraportables, resellers needed to teach users that smaller didn't mean cheaper as well as stock and market all the accessories - everything from batteries to mounts to extra RAM and satchels, Chong said.

Right now, it seems the Holy Grail of mobile technology is a way off. Although we're seeing laptops that are smaller, faster and lighter than ever before, a degree of compromise in features and functionality means users are inclined to trade weight off against other factors, including price. When Intel refreshes its Centrino mobility bundle mid-2008 with the Montevina launch, the goal posts will move yet again.

The closest thing to mobile computing perfection right now is possibly the Itronix GoBook MR-1, made by UK-based military technology specialist, General Dynamics.

Mobility solutions distributor, Avantec, launches the MR-1 locally in December.

General manager, Dave Cawsey, said the MR-1 incorporated Bluetooth, WLAN, 3G, GPS, 30GB SSD, touchscreen, full keyboard, touchpad, joystick and thumbwheel, 1.2GHz of Intel U1400-powered grunt and 512MB-1GB of RAM in a 910g XP or Vista clamshell. It has a 5.4-inch screen and is certified under the MIL-STD 810G, MIL-HDBK 87213 and IP54 ruggedised specifications.

"It's military technology, so it works," Cawsey said. "We're seeing high interest in local councils, asset management data collection, defence, police, emergency services and so on."

Battery life is 3-6 hours. Optional DynaVue screen technology comes straight from LearJet instrument panels, giving 360 degrees of visibility and doublecontrast ratio, according to Cawsey. It's an ultraportable, but not as we know it. The price? A cool $6000.